As you know we like to debunk the myths here on SP and now the institution of classical music has landed in our sight. The myth being that classical music is an exclusive enclave for the rich or the gray-haired country club set and therefore inaccessible to Average Joe. This is not to imply that a night at the philharmonic or chamber music recital will compare to swilling Budweiser center field at the Talledega 500. Or for that matter staving off the autumnal chill with a flask of Jack Daniels inside a rocking stadium on college football Saturday. Admittedly, classical music is an acquired taste for most of us. But haven’t we already acquired this taste by now? Early inculcation comes at us from all corners. Bugs Bunny cartoons and TV commercials, sports shows and movies all employ classical music to tell a story, set a mood, or create dramatic effect. It’s time to remove the layers and enjoy the pure essence of the music and let it enter your soul. Yes, SP is on a romantic high after witnessing one of the great moments in modern classical music history: the debut of Gustavo Dudamel at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. When I tell you that classical music is as important to the life of the mind as great literature, daily newspapers and a museum stroll, I am not just whistling Dixie.
SP’s introduction to classical music came all at once and much too completely. With all due respect to Tennessee Williams who wrote those words and to Blanche who sentimentalized them on the stage in Streetcar, I entered the world of classical music a complete rube, a neophyte and maybe even a philistine. Raised on country music and pop, I didn’t know the difference between a contralto and a concerto, a pizzicato or a pastoral. SP made the discovery as an apprentice at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. My introduction into this world was by none other than Maestro Charles Wadsworth, who is regarded as the godfather of chamber music in America. While far from an expert now, I do enjoy the rare occasion of a night in the concert hall. As you might have guessed by these ramblings from time to time, SP is a jack of all trades and master of none. But I do enjoy broadening my horizons and jumping at every chance to dive into experience whenever it presents itself.
SP loves chamber music as well as a symphonic performance. Whether in an historic old venue like the Dock Street Theater in Charleston or the spanking new and sparkling exuberance of Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, a presentation of classical music by incredible artists is, in my opinion, the absolute zenith of civilization’s peak. But alas, there is a conundrum afoot concerning the survival of this venerable institution. You guessed it, the inevitable Shrinking Audience. To address this, many music directors today will introduce a new piece, the often dreaded “Modern” to accompany the traditional. Music directors will lure you in with a classic and familiar symphony and then pull out the new piece on the audience of hostages and, honestly, this cacophonous clatter is usually unbearable. Classic music’s conundrum continues in that audiences, old or new, seem to only want to hear the old familiar standbys. Yet the audience is shrinking because little of this is appealing to new and younger audiences. Perhaps this in an inevitable evolution of the genre and music directors should just give it up. How can concert halls compete with Wii, movies, TV, Internet, rock concerts and what have you? They absolutely cannot. And since they cannot, I say embrace what you are. Tradition. Stay classic and let the audience come to you. And I believe they will. Isn’t it enough to be great at what you do? Adjust audience expectations to a shrinking demographic and pander to that demographic shamelessly. This is more appealing – it seems to me — than bowing and scraping to meet every new trend that comes along. And what if someone really wants to hear new music? Have a new music night and let them bang a gong to Philip Glass all night long. Just give me Mahler and let me be. For the record, Dudamel’s inclusion of John Adam’s City Noir commissioned for the LA Phil was an extraordinary experience in new music that left the audience exhilarated. So forget everything I said above.
This actually is a good time to mention this point. How many bad movies do you sit through or walk out of? How many terrible and disappointing TV shows do you muddle through or change the channel on? Or hell, how many dates do you go on before you find the right one to settle down with? Classical music is no different in that your personal taste comes to bear here just as in every other performance or presentation. Just because you don’t like this one doesn’t mean you won’t like the next one. Granted, to compare the cost of a night at the symphony to the cost of a movie or TV show is a stretch, but give it an old college try before you make up your mind and close it forever. There are varying prices for all concert halls and in many there are standing room tickets which are very inexpensive. And if you’re a student, you are the luckiest of all. On the day of the performance, most theaters have what is called the Student Rush when unsold tickets are sold to students at a fraction of the cost.
As the old lament (at least here at SP) goes, there are not enough bastions of tradition left here in the U. S. of A. Yes, weddings, proms, and the occasional charity event still require a certain appropriate dress and behavior but even those institutions are threatened by the encroaching ooze of casualness. Leave the institutions alone, I say. If you don’t want to dress up, throw on a loin cloth and stay in the cave. Otherwise, embrace these endangered institutions and let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, uh, well, you get the message. Again, apologies to JFK.
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